This is a tale of 2 sisters, 2 canoe paddles and 300 gallons of milk. The year: 1971. My age: seven. Hair: piano-colored. Eyes: grape. Teeth: 17. Album of the Year: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Most earth-shattering event: the launch of Apollo XIII. It interrupted my piano recital and riveted the grown-ups to a black and white television set that snowed despite the rabbit ears on top. The reception was pretty much like driving through a blizzard. As the adults watched, the static grew louder. A rocket blasted off. Everyone cheered. I didn’t see what the big deal was, so I admired my reflection in my black patent leather shoes instead and practiced the Clementi sonatina I was going to play in my head. The green shag carpeting curled up around my oval feet like grass, which reminded me that life was, in general, pretty groovy. Favorite food: chocolate chip cookies. Favorite drink: Milk.
In Minnesota, where I grew up, we drank milk three meals a day, and then some. We had our own personal milkman named Bill who wore a blue hat even in the summer, and delivered us three gallons of milk and a pound of butter every week and milk chocolate bars at Christmastime. At night I’d fall asleep with a warm milkstache on my upper lip and count cows instead of sheep. Milk was in.
That year, the Beatles separated and soon thereafter, so did my parents. My father moved out to a bachelor pad with a whirlpool and a vibrating hip-and-thigh-toning machine in the exercise room. My sister and I visited him once a week. We’d listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits over and over on the record player. We’d eat peanuts salted in the shell. When my father was done, he’d make funny smacking sounds with his lips. That meant he was ready for a cigarette. His lighter tinkled like a handful of pennies. He’d light a Winston-Salem, and then look out the window vacantly, blowing smoke towards the moon. Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.
He always served us the same thing for dinner: buttered pumpernickel toast, scrambled eggs and milk. He chewed with his mouth open, which reminded me of my dog, which made me miss being at home in my own house, where I was somebody. In my father’s bachelor pad, I felt as beige as the walls. “Drink your milk,” he’d say in a monotone. “Why?” I’d ask, because I was seven, because I was testing him, because I just wanted him to talk to me about anything. “Because I said so,” he answered, pouring himself another glass of scotch and retiring to his easy chair. And no one dare disturb the sound of silence.
My sister cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher — all except for my glass of milk. I read the milk carton with as much concentration as my father was directing towards his newspaper. Pff pff went his lips, jingle jingle went his lighter and then a blue cloud of smoke collected over his head like a genie, waiting to grant a wish. My sister got her Nancy Drew book and settled on the couch in the living room with my dad. I stayed at the formica table and swiveled in the vinyl avocado chair. “Stop swiveling,” order a detached voice from behind a screen of newsprint.
I focused hard on the milk carton and in order to push my sadness back into my body. It was like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube. A cud-chewing polka-dotted cow with a wagging tail smiled at me from the side of the milk carton. There was another cartoon on the other side, of a beaming blonde boy, bobbing on a raft. Even the sun was smiling in his world. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the happy little boy’s boat was made entirely of milk cartons. EVERY BODY NEEDS MILK! proclaimed a parade of dancing letters that looked like they were part of a chorus line. I reluctantly took a tiny sip of milk. “It’s warm now,” I said to myself. I didn’t think anyone was listening. “Drink it anyway,” my father said, getting that angry edge in his voice. I wished I were that little boy without a care in the world, drifting on a gentle lake, in the warm sun. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.
While my father read about the war in Viet Nam War, I pretended to find equal fascination with what I was reading. I glanced back at the genie over my father’s oblivious head, squeezed the tears back into my eyes, and made a wish. And then, my mind magically began to swirl … and the path to love and recognition appeared right in front of my nose in Technicolor like the yellow brick road. The milk that moments before had seemed so odious and been a source of contention and disgust became my new elixir of love. The milk carton said this: “There are many different ways to build a milk carton boat! Tape milk cartons end-to-end, making long snakes with which to form a canoe. You can build catamaran hulls, outriggers, sailboats, giant gerbil-wheels! You are limited only by your imagination, and perhaps your experience in construction.” I could already feel the sun on my face and the water tickling my bare feet. I could hear the ducklings and mallards quacking at me to come play with them. My spirits rose like sunshine at dawn. “MILK CARTON BOAT RACE. LAKE CALHOUN. JULY 25TH!” I would build a boat and sail away and win a lot of money and everyone would be so proud of me, including my father. I felt this in my bones, which would be super strong from all the milk I would have to consume. My father interrupted my super galactic fantasy. “Drink your milk or I’ll get the hairbrush.” I gulped it down without issue. “I get dibs on this carton when it’s empty,” I said. “My father finally looked up. “Why?” His eyes met mine. I had scored one little victory already. “Because I am going to build a boat out of milk cartons,” I announced.
For the next six months I drank even more milk than usual and I enlisted my sister’s help. We drowned our lumpy cream of wheat in oceans of milk, creating archipelagoes in our cereal bowls. We made pudding every night, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch; it didn’t matter, as long as we used up a quart. We baked cheesecakes and soufflés, plied our friends with milk shakes and malteds after school, took baths in milk, washed our hair in milk, even shampooed Delilah, the miniature poodle, in 2%. By the time summer started, my sister and I had gone through 300 gallons of milk. The garage was piled high with empty, expectant cartons, waiting to be transformed and reincarnated into a boat that would be the envy of the whole Twin Cities. My picture would be above the fold of the Minneapolis Tribune. I would get a call from President Nixon congratulating me. I practiced my acceptance speech and vamped for the press in the bathroom mirror. “It looks like it’s going to be wild,” wrote one newspaper reporter. “Teams around the city have already started building their boats. Milk sales are skyrocketing. This is an event not to be missed.” I didn’t feel so alone any more. I was part of the something bigger now, something exciting and newsworthy. I drank up. The more milk I consumed, the more it consumed me. The milk revolution was going to change my world. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way.
In 1971, Ms. Magazine was launched. My mother burned her bra, took up pottery and started practicing yoga. My father grew his sideburns longer, moved back into the house, and complained my mother was brainwashing us with women’s lib and brown rice. He countered her measures by bringing a TV into the house, drinking Dr. Pepper with dinner, and taking us out to Dairy Queen for dessert. They argued about Nixon and the Viet Nam war, smoking in the house and whose turn it was to walk the dog. The only thing they agreed upon any more was that my sister and I still had to drink milk at every meal. We were caught in the middle, with a garageful of stinky milk cartons and a houseful of increasingly sour parents.
That summer I’m Okay, You’re Okay made it to the bestseller list as my mother and father drifted farther and farther apart. They stopped speaking to one another except when absolutely necessary. Their anger seethed like a lake whipped into froth by an impending storm. I became the bridge between their hostile shores. My milk carton boat would bring the family back together again. My dream for recognition became more urgent than a full bladder in a traffic jam. I would drink my milk obediently and gaze enviously at the happy blonde boy on his boat. He would seem to look right back into my eyes. I’m on your side when times get rough. I knew I would have to navigate my own course. And I had just the plan to keep us all from capsizing.
. My father met me in the garage with plywood, chicken wire and a staple gun. My mother came armed with twenty rolls of waterproof duct tape. My sister and I folded over the tops of the cartons and my mother taped the spout ends flush to create the building blocks for my boat. My father laid the cartons end to end like dominoes to form beams, and then encased the beams in chicken wire to form pontoons, and then stapled the pontoons to the plywood board. As a family, we assembled that milk carton boat on a sunny Saturday afternoon and it almost felt like we were a normal family again. Little did I know that this harmonious folding and taping and stapling and hammering was merely the calm before the storm. When the last nailed was pounded in, I was proud of my raft. I was proud of my family. I wanted them to be proud of me. I couldn’t wait to try out my boat.
Sunday, July 25, race day. The morning came warm and clear. I tied on my yellow flowered halter-top and squirmed into cutoff shorts. I examined the scab on my knee and wriggled my toes into pink flip-flops. I was ready to go! It was only 7:00 am. “Have some cereal. You’ll need the energy today.” My mother poured the milk on my Cheerios in a clockwise direction. I smiled at the boy on the raft one last time and he grinned back at me ear to ear. If you need a friend I’m sailing right behind.
8:00 am. My sister and I had our first fight over who got to sit in the front seat. She won because she was bigger. I got mad. We arrived at the lake. I was still mad. 8:30 am. The other contestants eagerly dragged their crafts to the shore. People had constructed boats that looked like school buses and toilets and gophers and Viking ships, boats with rows of oars and paddlewheels and triangular prows. My heart sank. Our square little pontoon raft that we had worked so hard on seemed so small in comparison, so insignificant and puny. Racers were beginning to line up behind the orange buoys. 1200 milk-swilling competitors dressed in tie-dyed t-shirts and crocheted bikinis waded into Lake Calhoun. I was awestruck and suddenly afraid. The applause began like gentle rain at first and then grew louder and more enthusiastic. “Girls, get over here and help me carry your boat to the water,” ordered my father, his lips clenched around a burning cigarette. My sister and I both grabbed the same side.
“I got here first.”
“No you didn’t.” she pushed me.
“Did so.” I clung harder.
“Did not.” She pulled my hair. I spit at her.
“God damn it, girls!” my father snarled. I started to cry. I ran to the other side. The sand felt good between my toes. I didn’t want to miss the start of the race. I caught the blonde boy’s kind, waxy eyes peering at me through the chicken wire. When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. We ran to the shore. We slid our raft into the water. It floated. It was a miracle. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way.
My father stood on the beach, puffing in silence. I watched the smoke curl around his hair. I could not see his eyes through his sunglasses. My mother pushed us up to the starting line and handed us our paddles. The whistle blew. There was splashing and shrieking and cheering. The milk carton boats were off. Racers quickly passed the orange buoys. The lake water sparkled and danced as hundreds of milk carton boats churned the water into diamonds. People were paddling, sailing, kayaking, pedaling, paddlewheeling, even kicking their milk carton contraptions across the lake. Everyone, that is, except for me and my sister, because we had both started paddling on the right side of the raft. “Paddle on the other side!” yelled my sister.
“But I got on this side first,” I paddled harder. The boat veered to the left.
“No you didn’t, I got here first.”
“You’re ruining it,” I cried.
“No you are,” she snapped.
“You shut up.”
My mother waded out to where we were spinning in circles, straightened out the raft and pushed us back towards the middle of the lake. I switched sides, pretending to accidentally splash my sister in the face. She sprayed me back and switched to the left also.
“I’m going to paddle on this side. Stay on the other side,” she said bossily.
“But I just was on the other side and you told me to switch.”
“I changed my mind.” We argued. She pinched me. I cried. She gave me the silent treatment. I glared at her. All the other boats were halfway across the lake and turning around to come back, and we still had not even crossed the starting line. When darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. I paddled as hard as I could, but our boat just spiraled like a broken record. I looked back at the shore for help. My father was gone. My mother stood knee-deep in the water, waving, encouraging us on, but unwilling to intervene. By the time my sister and I forgave each other and figured out how to paddle together as a team and go forwards, the race was over.
Needless to say, we didn’t win the milk carton boat race. We didn’t even come close. We couldn’t paddle my parents back together, no matter how hard we tried. Instead, my sister and I unwittingly turned their marital drama into our own version of a pathetic water ballet. Perched on two separate pontoons, we went around in circles because we couldn’t agree on anything. Try as we might, we were stuck and furious with each other, and the more mad we got, the more we whipped the water into whitecaps with our useless paddling, and the further we floated from our goal. Even if we had been able to paddle perfectly in sync, and had won the blue ribbon that day, our parents’ story would still have ended the only way that it could have. I suppose it was no accident that we as a family had built a boat with two independent flotations instead of a single hull. A few months later, my parents got divorced, and the milk carton boat went into the trash.
The Minneapolis Aquatennial Milk Carton Boat Races were started in 1971 because the advertising agency Campbell Mithun, Inc. had wanted to increase sales for the Milk Foundation of the Twin Cities. “Publicity Stunt Snowballs Into Wild Event,” raged the headline in the Pioneer Press, on July 25, 1971. Reporter Linda Kohl quipped of the boat race: “It could be the most spectacular nautical event since the sinking of the Titanic, and at the very least may someday be hailed as one of the great advertising coups of the decade.”
34 years later, the milk carton boat race is still taking place every summer on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have recently been toying with the idea of testing my mettle again. My sister and I have become best friends. We both have strong bones and share an abiding love of the water. I know we could easily take turns paddling on opposite sides of the boat now. Maybe we could even be contenders. We still love Simon and Garfunkel. But there is just one problem: we have both developed an allergy to milk.
This story was originally published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, 2006: True Stories from Around the World.